Students who pursue their passions for music — whether through producing, appreciating or reading about it — have adapted their melodic interests to the classroom setting this year. Three Group Independent Study Projects, one last fall and two this spring, are linked through this common theme. Criticism, Korean Pop and composition are the ways that students have tuned in to music-based learning, turning casual hobbies and lifelong obsessions into academic pursuits.
“I’ve always read a lot about music. It got to the point where I would procrastinate by reading a lot of music criticism,” said Ben Berke ’16, coordinator this semester’s GISP, “Music Journalism.”
Last summer, Berke found himself “killing tons of time” at work by reading articles by Robert Christgau, a music critic who spent over 30 years with the Village Voice. “And then I had this revelation: I should turn this into a class,” Berke said.
The course surveys three core writings styles: criticism, profile or feature and personal essays, Berke said. The class also covers a variety of forms of music journalism, from documentaries to biopics to radio spots.
Students in the GISP aim to expose themselves to the genre of music journalism, but do not necessarily create music, Berke said.
But the students have had an ample amount of time to write and critique. Of the two days that the course meets per week, one is often devoted to students workshopping their writings. This will culminate in a final project, for which each student will submit a final portfolio to their advisor Adam Golaski, vising lecturer in English, Berke said.
“I never really had an attachment to an instrument per se, but the way that I’ve listened to music and appreciated it — that’s something I’ve done in my entire life,” said Dylan Hogan ’16, a student in the course. He added that though he habitually writes his thoughts on a particular song at his own leisure, he has enjoyed honing his writing skills and exploring how to structure his writings “in the best way so that people can enjoy reading them.”
This beat is popping
Paige Morris ’16 has been a fan of K-Pop for a few years and follows developments in the genre on a regular basis. But she wanted to take her interest a step further last semester through her GISP, “Consuming Popular Culture in Contemporary Korea.”
“I was interested in exploring things like gender, social and health issues in the Korean pop culture industry,” she said.
Composed of 12 units, the course addressed an array of issues, such as masculinity and femininity portrayed in the media, mental health issues in the training process for K-Pop stars and cultural appropriation in music videos.
Sienna Bates ’16, an East Asian studies concentrator and one of the six students in the GISP, wrote her final paper for the course on cultural appropriation in K-Pop. Much of K-Pop is influenced by hip-hop from African-American artists, and “they don’t always treat it in the most respectful way,” Bates said.
While this problem pervades American pop in general, “it is interesting to see it again in the Korean Pop culture,” she added.
On the right track
Though the Department of Music offers a course with the same name in the multimedia and electronic music experiments program, the GISP “Advanced Music Composition” is radically different, said Peter Enriquez ’16, who created the course with Grant Meyer ’16.
The course eliminates much of the prior advanced computational skills that the department’s course requires, Enriquez said. This meant opening up the course to students outside of the program — including Enriquez — and those with a wider range of music background and abilities.
The course offers students a holistic experience of music recording and includes a total of six songs for students to replicate as accurately as possible. Songs include Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” and Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” said Sam Dallas ’16, a student in the course.
The GISP also features a research component: Prior to making and recording the songs, students search for sources that could help with deconstructing the assigned song into parts that they can then recreate, Enriquez said.
“Some tracks are just impossible to research. It really comes down to listening to the song,” he said, adding that for this reason the group has reserved “A Day In the Life” by the Beatles as its final song of the semester.
Though the group includes “competent musicians and engineers,” it has faced challenges due to limited equipment and facilities, Enriquez said. “There’s a certain extent of acceptance that you’ll fail every time, and yet we are able to get closer each time.”
GISP coordinators agreed that though a lot of preparation went into planning and structuring their respective courses, the GISPs have become different from what they had planned.
“Everyone contributed equally to the syllabus,” Berke said, noting that initially about 15 students agreed to be part of the course and contributed to its structure, pitching topics and readings for each week. Many students had to drop the course due to scheduling and requirements, though, and the course ended up with a total of six people. This necessitated a lot of reworking as the course went along, Berke added.
Enriquez also said he experienced some challenges during the planning stage. Other interested students struggled to decide which tracks the course should tackle, so Enriquez and Meyer ultimately decided the final set of songs on their own.
Coordinators also agreed that students who reached out and remained were those whom they knew in some tangential way. This degree of familiarity has provided a space for students to freely and easily express and share their thoughts.
“It’s really helpful when you’re with people you’re close with,” Enriquez said. “It’s really comfortable to let your shit fly. You’re not afraid to be more straightforward.”
Bates said the process of structuring the syllabus prior to the start of the course established a basis of friendship among the students, which further solidified throughout the semester. She added that this semester, she meets up with the students from the class on a weekly basis to watch Korean TV dramas.
“The K-Pop class was my favorite class at Brown so far,” Bates said. “I loved the sense of community created from it. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it in the end.”
Though Hogan had previously discussed music with friends who had similar tastes in music, he had “never been in a situation with people with different backgrounds, taste and ideas” before the GISP, he said.
“I’ve enjoyed this practice of writing more and having people of different perspectives critique my writing,” he added.
Though the K-Pop GISP ended last semester, its impact endures for Morris and Bates.
Morris is taking a course on transpacific pop culture taught in the American studies department this semester. “It’s a really cool course that touches on similar issues of gender and race brought up in the GISP,” she said.
Students in the other music-oriented GISPs this semester also anticipate a continuation of their academic endeavors with music.
“Grant and I are playing around with the idea of having another GISP next semester,” Enriquez said, adding that the next GISP would focus more on applied circuitry, such as delving into how to set up speaker sets to produce the best sound.
Berke, who said he wanted to see if “there is a scene of reading and writing music” at Brown, is now striving to create this community.
Several students from the music journalism GISP are developing a new on-campus music publication called “B-Side,” Berke said.
The group hopes to establish a website for B-Side by the end of the month, he said. “We’re aiming for a print issue by the end of the semester, but that’s still up in the air.”
A previous version of this article misstated that Ben Berke ’16 read music reviews by Robert Caruso. In fact, he read reviews by Robert Christgau. The article also misstated that Paige Morris ’16 helped create a GISP on trans-specific pop culture. In fact, she helped create a GISP on transpacific pop culture. The Herald regrets the errors.